Mentoring Writers

December 5, 2008

One of the most important roles academics play as mentors is teaching their trainees how to write effectively, whether in science, the humanities, or whatthefuckever discipline. As soon as I see the first piece of writing produced by a new trainee in my lab, within seconds I either breathe a tremendous sigh of relief, or begin to cry forlornly.

It’s all about being able to write a decent sentence. If a trainee can write a decent English sentence that means what they want it to mean, then they can be taught to structure sentences into paragraphs, and paragraphs into papers, grants, etc. But if they can’t write a decent English sentence, I know to get ready for some serious hand-wringing and pulling out of my own hair. Because by the time people have graduated college, if they don’t know how to write a decent English sentence, there is little hope that they can learn.

I have read sentences written by some of my trainees that literally suck meaning out of the universe. They have negative information content. On one occasion, I crossed out an entire paragraph written by one of my trainees and commented beside it, “This is so wrong in so many different ways, I don’t even know what to say.”

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25 Responses to “Mentoring Writers”


  1. I am disappointed that this post was not accompanied by the graphic of Samuel L. Jackson screaming “English, motherfucker. Do you speak it?”


  2. I just found out that part of my teaching responsibilities next semester will include teaching students how to write. What the fuck? These are white, American college juniors in a program that requires a stellar GPA across a tough set of pre-requisites to even apply. The list of grammar and punctuation topics that I need to cover is stuff that I was taught in the 5th grade. Shame, shame, shame on the US education system.

  3. JLK Says:

    I don’t know how so many students are able to get away with graduating from college with no writing skills whatsoever. How they then get into graduate school is even more of a mystery to me.

    Luckily, my MRU requires multiple courses designated as “writing intensive” before you can graduate in addition to the core 101 English courses that everyone has to go through.

    I don’t know if students just avoid any and all classes that require them to write papers or what. I love writing papers. I love essay exams as opposed to multiple choice fill-in-the-bubble bullshit. Writing actually demonstrates what you have learned.

    Come to think of it, in the past 2 1/2yrs not counting grad school apps, I have probably written well over 300 pages of academic material.

    I wonder if I can find a way to tie it all together, add some data, and turn it into a dissertation 5 years early……

  4. juniorprof Says:

    Dude, I so feel your pain. I am sometimes tempted to just ask people to record for dictation because they never make such egregious mistakes when speaking.

  5. leigh Says:

    that may be the best comment ever written on a paragraph. i laughed.

    question: was it legible? half my time responding to critique (at this point more wording than anything) is trying to figure out wtf that word in the margin is…

    now how the hell we can have people with college degrees in this country who can’t write in english, that’s beyond me.


  6. I think college is too fucking late. Comrade PhysioProf can write because he was required to write a 1000-word argumentative essay every motherfucking week in middle and high school. Figure that’s 30 essays per year for six years: 180,000 words. That’s how you learn to write a fucking sentence!


  7. I didn’t write shit in high school. I went to a good Jr. High (Brooklyn Friends), they taught me how to write in 6th grade, and I just fucking learned it.

    It’s more a matter of whether or not you think clearly. I don’t know if clear thinking can be taught or learned; if it can be learned, I think (like foreign languages) if you don’t learn it early, you’ll never learn it.

  8. bikemonkey Says:

    I used to be able to write. No longer. What’s that tell ya??


  9. But why is the sky blue? Because ice cream has no bones.

    In all seriousness, the problem of not being able to construct a meaningful sentence is a pretty huge one. When I get asked “how long does it have to be” in response to an assignment, I cringe. The real question should be, “what information do I need to convey?”


  10. I think college is too fucking late. Comrade PhysioProf can write because he was required to write a 1000-word argumentative essay every motherfucking week in middle and high school. Figure that’s 30 essays per year for six years: 180,000 words. That’s how you learn to write a fucking sentence!

    That’s definitely part of it, but a big part of learning how to write is by reading a lot. How many of today’s students read anything on a regular basis? They have grown up with copious amounts of technologies such as the internetz, x-box and cell phones. How many of them have ever read a book that was not required for a class?

  11. River Tam Says:

    I think we don’t give enough writing assignments in college, so I gave one to my 170 student undergraduate class (for which I do not have any TAs to help with grading), well…let’s just say I will never ever do that again. The students hate it, the writing so bad that my most common comment was “I have no idea what this is supposed to mean”, and by the end I was seriously thinking about drinking myself to death.

    CPP- thanks for all the comments over at PC. I will no longer turn down speaking invites (only turned down one), and – more importantly – I now have a Xmas gift for General Disarray!! Thanks!

  12. SJC Says:

    “That’s definitely part of it, but a big part of learning how to write is by reading a lot.”

    – Beat me to the punch. I can recall a teacher addressing spelling problems back in public school (maybe grade 7) and saying how the best way to improve your spelling is to read (a revelation to at least one student). A friend even recently blamed the lack of writing ability in our student paper on – ahem – blogging. Whether that is true or not, I don’t know, but much of the internet has neglected concise and well-written prose for “OMG did you here brittneys sister is knokd up?”.


  13. Were in you’re labrtories, sucking meaning out of your brane.

    (As an aside, this is why I don’t read ERV. The idea that one would write a high-profile blog and flat-out refuse to spell/grammar-check it irritates me, but not as much as her apparent satisfaction at flouting the rules. And it’s too bad, because from what little I read, she seemed interesting.)

    I agree that writing needs to be taught early and often. I was appalled when high school friends would complain that a history teacher docked them points for bad grammar in an essay. “That doesn’t have anything to do with the content!” they would exclaim. Yes, and no.

  14. Fixer Says:

    Write???!!!! Shit, I’m a mechanic. Most of my colleagues don’t know how to spell, let alone construct a sentence. I cry forlornly constantly as I try to decipher notes I’m left on jobs.

  15. Eugenie Says:

    “I think college is too fucking late. Comrade PhysioProf can write because he was required to write a 1000-word argumentative essay every motherfucking week in middle and high school. Figure that’s 30 essays per year for six years: 180,000 words. That’s how you learn to write a fucking sentence!”

    Some schools still hold that practice. I distinctly remember writing a 15 page paper in ninth grade on post-modernist literary theory.

  16. Annie Says:

    It’s just as bad in engineering and nursing. Having written my first research paper using primary sources in an eight grade combined US history and English class, I lucked out in the public school department and had ample opportunity to read and write copiously.

    In college, I transferred as a nascent English/speech major to psychology and nursing at a much more rigorous research university, and so was thrown into the general frosh required composition class, despite my many English classes at a more advanced level. Except for me, the class was populated with plastic pocket protector, slide rule (so what if I’m that old?) bearing engineering students.

    The class was led by a creative writing instructor also new to the university, himself a short story writer. He just about committed suicide by the end of the course since he required weekly essays based on the novel assigned. The engineers, equation savvy as anybody, simply couldn’t get the hang of N(oun)+V(erb)= C(oherence).

    @River Tam:
    I feel your pain – or hangover. I also thought I’d use the essay form, and I assigned 100 + undergraduate nursing students a single wee chapter of a Madeline L’Engle work of fiction and asked the students to write a character analysis. (my lamebrained attempt to use literature to pick away at therapeutic communication and cultural awareness. Yeah. Riiiight.)

    Head. Explode. Stars. I. Sees. Them.

    My father, himself a mech. e. who designed – ahem – fossil fuel power plants, also told many stories of service engineers unable to write cogent reports – that was in the 1950 and 60s.

  17. mudphudder Says:

    It is painful to read through some manuscripts. Am I the only one who feels embarassed for the student?

  18. phagenista Says:

    I have read sentences written by some of my trainees that literally suck meaning out of the universe. They have negative information content.

    Needs a couple more sentences, but good start on channeling Terry Pratchett, CPP!

  19. Becca Says:

    I feel compelled to speak up against the pernicious creep of “off my lawn!”ism (have people been reading too many of Sol’s comments or something?)

    PiT- one of the things that has always amazed me is how many people don’t read books at all, and low the number is for “mean number of books per unit time”. That said, I see no particular evidence of a “kids today” phenomenon. Actually, statistically older people are more likely to fall into the category of individuals who “did not read a single book in the past year” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/08/21/AR2007082101045.html).
    I’m also far from convinced that reading periodicals and even, *gasp*, the internet (this blog notwithstanding) is necessarily a poor aid for learning proper sentence construction.

    DJ&MH- do you also have trouble reading Mark Twain’s dialog or ee cummings’s poetry? Erv’s netspeak has a set of reasonably consistent (albeit unconventional) rules; you can learn to read it if you are motivated to so so.

  20. drugmonkey Says:

    oh, so LOLspeak is a dialect, not just ignorant twaddle? Ohhhh. OK.


  21. On one occasion, I crossed out an entire paragraph written by one of my trainees and commented beside it, “This is so wrong in so many different ways, I don’t even know what to say.”

    You don’t think that’s a little unprofessional? Honest question; I’m not pulling a Sol on you.

  22. becca Says:

    DM- you say that like they’re mutually exclusive!

  23. MarkusR Says:

    riting is overatet.

  24. scicurious Says:

    I’m going to say that reading books won’t always save you. Many of the more “modern” writing styles employed don’t always use correct sentence structure, and incorrectness is used to convey a point. Unfortunately, it’s used too often.

    I now edit every manuscript and grant that comes out of my lab (with the exception of one guy who’s just as good as I am). There are sentences that burned holes in my retinas. What has been seen cannot be unseen…
    http://icanhascheezburger.com/2008/02/27/funny-pictures-cannot-be-unseen/


  25. […] January 8, 2009 General News & Thoughts , Unsolicited Advice , Writing Ever since Physioprof wrote a post about how to write a sentence, I’ve wanted to write some posts about writing. I was mulling this over, and then DrMrA gave me […]


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